Now that I’m retired and have plenty of time on my hands, there’s no excuse to turn down my eighty-nine year old mother when she wants or needs to be driven somewhere. It isn’t that I don’t enjoy spending time with her (a lie) but what really annoys me is having to hear all about the Great Depression. Frankly, I’m sick of it. This week I drove her to H&R Block to get her taxes done. Along the way she said words I’ve heard often enough to lip-sync to: “You young people don’t know how good you have it. In my day we had the Great Depression to deal with.”
I find it amusing that she refers to me as “young.” I’m sixty-one. My mother was four years old when the Depression struck in 1929, but she still manages to take that financial fiasco personally. I imagine most of the people who lived through that era and are still with us were small children when disaster struck. I once tried to explain to Mom that it was her parents who suffered most; she was too small to worry about paying rent or feeding a family of five. At the time, my grandfather was an invalid unable to earn a living and my grandmother worked in the cannery to put food on the table. My mother didn’t appreciate my response and proceeded to blame the Depression for every setback she’d faced in her long life.
It’s true that my grandparents, like so many others, were wiped out when the banks collapsed, but let me say it again—my mother was F-O-U-R years old. Sure, bad times prevailed but everyone was poor. President Lincoln was once asked if he had a poor childhood and he responded that his family was like everyone else’s; nobody had anything so nobody felt poor. Still, I remember welling up as a child when Mom would relate how after Christmas one year she dragged a discarded Christmas tree through the snow to her house because they were too poor to buy one. Snow? In sunny California?
My late father was also bitten by the bug to blame all childhood misfortunes on the Depression. He used to tell me times were so rough when he was a child that he had to sleep with his six brothers just to keep warm, and their town was so poor he had to walk miles in the snow to reach a single room schoolhouse. Really? In sunny California?
Eighty-four years have come and gone since Black Thursday in ‘29 and I hereby proclaim the statute of limitations has passed for folks in their 80s and 90s to use the Depression as a trump card to put us youngsters in our place. With all due respect to the so-called Greatest Generation, let’s not forget that these folks also lived through the Fifties and Sixties, arguably the greatest era of prosperity our country has experienced. If I were to blame anything on the Depression it’s that when my parents finally had disposable income they were too cautious to invest in Hewlett-Packard, Boeing, Microsoft, 3-M, Apple, FedEx or countless other money-making ventures.
Having said this, I must confess to a smidge of hypocrisy. I’m as guilty as those I criticize for exploiting the past to create a “teachable moment” for the next generation. When our son was small I sat him on my lap and tried to explain that food didn’t originate in grocery stores. I plucked a pear from our kitchen fruit bowl, held it up and said, “When Daddy was a boy he lived in a house that backed up to a pear orchard. That orchard was so big that if I stood at its center I could walk for an hour in any direction without leaving it.”
There was an orchard behind our house alright, but the rest was an outright lie. I blame my dishonesty on the fact that I was traumatized as a youth by not living during the Depression and didn’t have decent tales of misery to exploit.
Our son listened intently as I talked about an orchard the size of Greenland. I could see a question growing in his periwinkle blue eyes. He finally said, “Daddy, what’s an orchard?”
After doing my best to explain, I told him about the sunny California snow I walked through on my way to school.
April 7, 2014 at 1:40 pm
It seems ever older person had to walk six miles uphill going to and coming from school every day. I’m with you: enough is enough!
April 7, 2014 at 2:21 pm
what a hilarious and very excellent article. My father used to go on and on about the Depression and he was only 9!!!! My Grandmother never complained about the Depression and she was the young widow who had to take care of two boys and work full time!
I think those complainers ought to reflect on what has happened to our young people of today who go to college and then have to make coffee in a Starbucks since there aren’t any meaningful jobs available.
April 7, 2014 at 3:33 pm
I predict in a few decades we’re going to see another round of The Great Depression-like tales, but this time they’ll be from The Great Recession of ’08. I can only hope that just like in the ’50’s and ’60’s we can enjoy a period of almost universal prosperity to make up for those bleak years that came before. I’ll tell my kids how I had to ride a bicycle both ways to school, uphill, during our frozen Texas winters. They’ll be so impressed.
April 7, 2014 at 4:26 pm
really cute. my folks were tiny when the depression was going on, still we grew up extremely poor.
April 7, 2014 at 5:15 pm
A few well-intended untruths from parents never did any harm. Ok, so I trust no one – and my self-esteem is non existent – and then there’s my forensic history (only manslaughter and fraud, so not too) – and my morbid jealousy – and self-mutilation … …
April 7, 2014 at 6:59 pm
My parents were born on the eve of WWII, so i only heard about how great the 50’s were, and how we were deprived by not living through them.
Great article, and now i need to go tell my kids how great they have it compared to when i had to go to school with the nuns!
April 7, 2014 at 7:06 pm
Oh my gosh, this tale of you and your Mom just cracks me up. My folks were the same way and always saved everything for good since they did without when they were in the Depression. Unfortunately, so many things they saved had to be thrown away never having been used……for good.
I agree, enough with the Depression already. Great story.
April 7, 2014 at 8:49 pm
Ha ha, kids today will tell their children how the air conditioned bus was late picking them up because the driver was texting his girl friend and drove into a ditch. Each generation has its challenges:))
April 7, 2014 at 9:16 pm
So true and funny. Each generation has its series of standby stories to fall back on. As each generation dies off, so too are the stories. That said, history tends to repeat itself. We borrow use, manipulate and twist stories to make a point.
p.s. Enjoy this writer’s view(s) and perspective.
April 7, 2014 at 9:20 pm
I’m envious of you. Your mother is only seven years older than mine. Yet I’m in my early forties. It’s a real struggle trying to balance such old parents without the luxury of retirement to fall back on. Instead, I’m trying to do it with a forty hour work week.
April 7, 2014 at 10:19 pm
Very funny! My dad had to walk six miles to school and carry the horse when it got tired.
April 7, 2014 at 10:43 pm
ha. snow in cali eh? smiles…
yes our imagination has a field day with our memories now doesnt it
lol…def there will be things i am sure from my generation i will pass on to my kids…as teachable lessons…smiles.
April 7, 2014 at 11:00 pm
I think that there are many situations where the truth is torqued to make a point or just embellish a story. I think people who actually experienced the depression tell a different story. My dad, who was 17 when the depression started only told hard luck stories with humor.
April 8, 2014 at 12:29 am
I appreciate your take. My mother, also a child of the depression though a bit older than your mom, used to save everything. I couldn’t believe how much “STUFF” she kept because, “you never know when it might come in handy.” They certainly learned to improvise.
April 8, 2014 at 1:26 am
It’s really frightening how you find yourself becoming your parents. You know their most annoying sayings are coming out of your mouth- yet you’re powerless to stop yourself!! Ack!! Great post. 🙂
April 8, 2014 at 2:58 am
My mom is 79. She lived through a few years of the Great Depression, which apparently lasted until 1939. No doubt she saw how thrifty her parents were, because she washes out Solo cups to use again, and baggies, and saves those Styrofoam take-out containers to put leftovers in after holidays. She even tears select-a-size paper towels in half. She says she’s saving my inheritance.
April 8, 2014 at 12:16 pm
Another great post.
April 8, 2014 at 3:36 pm
My great grandmother is 89. There’s a lot of stories she tells that I just don’t understand. Like the whole thing with someone called The rag man who she claims used to come down their alley and buy rags and scraps. That sounds like the premise of a Clive Barker novel, and I don’t know that I believe it.
Whatever happened back then, it made my great grandfather search for deals on groceries his whole life. You’d never catch me saying, “Ma, look at this! Bananas for 40 cents a pound! I almost bought some last week for 45 cents a pound. Thank God I waited.”
April 8, 2014 at 4:41 pm
My parents were born and raised in Arkansas, and both families were so poor they claim they never even knew when the depression hit. They were however, extremely tight with a dollar and always quick to scold if I spent money in a manner they considered unnecessary or unwise. When I bought my first record player Dad went off the deep end, “That’s going to be a constant expense,” he roared.
I guess I’m a chip off the old block. I deducted 25 cent from my children’s allowance everytime they left the light on in their bedroom. By the end of the week, they owed me money.
April 8, 2014 at 6:50 pm
I love Stephen’s great writing ability. He always makes me laugh.
April 8, 2014 at 8:19 pm
Oh my, those awful ten mile walks to school, barefoot!, uphill, both ways! in the snow! in the dark! LOL! My grands and great grands were all born and raised in Arkansas, and I know they had a rough go of the Depression…and all other significant and devastating “events” during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. My only wish is that I had listened to their stories more closely.
I still flick the lights off room by room as I go about my day….I’m glad I inherited a tiny bit of the “penny-pinchin'” gene from my ancestors.
Great story Stephen!
April 8, 2014 at 10:04 pm
It’s funny how each generation does this to some extent. I have even heard my older son explaining how things were different in his day to his brother, just three years his junior. Fun story.
April 9, 2014 at 12:48 am
What a great story – entertaining, humorous, and certainly told with a twinkle in the writer’s eyes!
My father always would tell the story of growing up in a house heated only by a wood stove in the kitchen. The glass of water on his night stand would sometimes be frozen on bitterly cold winter mornings.
I, on the other hand, tell my kids about having to drive a vehicle without air conditioning during South Carolina summers.
April 9, 2014 at 8:02 am
A lovely article, Stephen, thank you! My Mother used to talk of the Depression in the UK, and she would have been very young at the time. It was usually in the context of what my Grandparents had suffered, but she remembered being hungry as a child. I guess the fear the adults were feeling at the time would have had some effect on a young child, but I agree it’s best now to try to live in the present moment if we can. Thankfully, it’s a lot better place in so many ways then the Depression years.
June 1, 2014 at 1:46 pm
In an interview with my father I asked him how his family was effected by the great depression. Of course he was a young boy at the time but old enough to recall that they were not affected at all. After hearing all the horror stories coming out of that era I was surprised. But it turns out both my maternal and paternal grandparents were in the insurance business during those years and did quite well.